Charles answers | Manila Times
“I came from experience from scratch, so whatever I go through, I make sure it doesn’t happen again. We are all friends. The people I work with in the kitchen are my friends.”
The rock ‘n’ roll mythology that worked in the guise of some of the world’s infamous chefs doesn’t apply to Charles Montañez.
While Grupo Alegria’s chef and chief operating officer (COO) works in invisible rooms behind his open kitchen, he insists it’s par for the course.
Hot temper and toxicity do not define his cuisine and his dining concepts.
“Chefs these days try to avoid unnecessary flaunting and voice, instead of focusing on what really matters,” he said.
“I built a company and a place to not be like that. I came with experience from scratch, so whatever negative moments I experienced, I am sure that this will not happen again. [toxicity] hmm We are all friends. The people I work with in the kitchen are my friends,” he said, not saying a word about our disappointment with Pinoy’s missed version of Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Secrets.”
Chef Charles entered the interview, making his usual rounds of Alegria Manila with a steady gait, just as the open kitchen burst into the buzz of scheduled service.
Alegria is dimly lit. The shade of purple atmosphere is languid elegance. But in the saloons at his best tables, one could knock over beer, sangria, bubble cocktails and immerse oneself in a convivial Latin American picture.
The kitchen bedlam that has become a Hollywood and reality TV trope is nowhere to be heard. Just a suspicion of culture—chef Charles’s French training in culinary arts and his Latin American taste patterns—colliding peacefully.
“We are very disorganized right now,” he admitted, not too afraid of the consequences of such a privileged view of the business side.
The statement even smacks of pride because it signals the aggressiveness that has carried his Alegria concept to this point.
On the main strip of Uptown Parade in the Taguig CBD, fine dining restaurant Alegria will be the jewel in Chef Charles’s crown.
This Alegria, the flagship, is his favorite, the high note of a symphony of concepts he calls: “Alegria for all.” [joy for everyone].”
“This concept has been simmering for the past five years,” he said. “That has always been the goal. Other restaurants support this cause.”
“Others” can hardly be sent to the periphery of the dining room. They crawl from Manila to Alabang and Boracay.
So far, there’s a cantina (Cantina Alegria in Molito, Alabang), a warm and fluffy brunch spot (Café Alegria in Burgos Circle, Bonifacio Global City) and Buena Vida, his boutique club on the fourth floor of the Uniqlo building.
“I always wanted it to be a restaurant with a tasting menu,” he continued, recalling the five-year backstory. “But then when we started the company, we had to focus on sustainability. We haven’t had access to the information yet. So we had to make sure it worked.”
To play it safe meant to combine the formalities of five, seven, ten courses with a bar. Chef Charles couldn’t dive into the deep end of haute cuisine despite having bought out previous restaurants nearing closure and flipped them to fit the group’s concept.
He did this with partners who also happen to be close friends and kitchen neighbors from past gigs.
Chef Charles oversees the operations while another partner is in charge of marketing and another one handles the business.
“We have been together for such a long time. We followed each other everywhere. When I opened Alegria five years ago, I had the same pioneering team. Most of them are already chefs,” he said.
Sous chef Gilbert Borja and pastry chef Chico Orsin are with him at Alegria Manila.
“We had to be safe with our first approach; we needed something to lean on. If the food doesn’t work, the bar can,” he said.
Chef Charles travels to Singapore where they opened Alegria last year.
There is no logical calculation of how sleep fits into his system, but who needs rest?
However, he claims that it spurs his creative ideas.
“Downtime makes you think about other things [other than your best ideas]; you become disorganized.”
And again self-control. Thinking about eating 80 percent a day as it approaches is part of a lifetime dream sequence. This is his simple one-step process – “what I dream of.”
It’s the same approach to things that makes him build the group’s back offices into an efficient and more disciplined workout. Order also occupies them these days. This is not anarchy either.
It all started when, as a child, he dipped his little fingers into his mom’s cooking. Not for the sassy sauce, but to spice it up. He was always, so to speak, “tinkering with his mother’s cooking.”
Years of culinary indoctrination followed, which would have suppressed the exploratory habit of fiddling with tradition. Naturally, he was trained in the French style, which he recognizes as “the basis of everything culinary.”
He was educated at the International School of Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management and the Global Academy of Culinary Arts and Hospitality in the Philippines. He has visited cuisines such as Ibiza at Bonifacio Global City and the Movenpick Hotel in Cebu.
He has worked in various restaurants in Singapore. It was all of his 20s and he puts on the chef’s hat pretty early. At 30, he is already anointed by judges such as Tatler Dining.
He finds Latin American cuisine to be a good balance between the discipline and quality-oriented methods of Western culinary traditions and the “highlight of Asian flavors”.
He has previously worked with Spanish cuisine, but his eyes sparkle, testing culinary boundaries.
“There is nothing in Latin American (Los Angeles) cuisine that I don’t do. And then I asked myself – I wanted to do something that I had no experience in, simply because it would excite me a lot when it comes to learning. I realized how deep and similar LA cuisine is to Filipino cuisine. We have very similar tastes,” he said.
However, he is comfortable with the impact his band could have on the Philippine food scene.
“I don’t think we can influence what Filipino cuisine should be, but I think the best thing we’re doing right now is that we’re influencing people without wanting to be limited by the rules.
Modern times should be used for creativity, so we just keep creating. So if there’s one thing I’d like to influence the younger generation, it’s that… they can just do whatever they want,” he spoke extensively about the individualism of taste, as in Alegria interiors.
Paintings by Filipino artists accentuate the ornate tables, while silvery ceiling awnings bet on a different adventure plan.
Adventure is what they’ll get on the tasting menu, although there are familiar and comforting digressions from local ingredients.
Chef Charles personally loves okoy tostada, which has calcag (dried baby prawns from Iloilo) wrapped in a taco shell and topped with pumpkin, flax seeds and local crabmeat in mussel cream.
Dishes such as La Trinidad corn, Benguet with crispy quinoa, Aklana oysters in yakult leche tigri, mango butter and cilantro are all made with produce from local farmers.
It was from the first quarter; one can only guess how and where Chef Charles may move in the next tasting menus.
Praises should be purely random, and he would like to play that way. To be honest, he thought of the highest ones (hello Michelin stars).
“But I don’t want to limit myself to that.”
He is open about the structured defiance of culinary canons and the glamorization of the gourmet food industry. It emphasizes its sharp corners. Sweeping dishes with nimble and gentle fingers in an open kitchen “is only 25 percent of the job.”
“Tradition should always be respected, but innovation should never be feared.”
It sounded more like an elderly statesman than a clichéd bad boy in the kitchen or a guy who just knows what hard work is.
When I was 20 it cost 3500 pesos for two weeks of work.
Check out my dog, Salsa, who is named after the best thing you can put on a taco, since I like to think I’m a taco and he’s a salsa. We are best friends!
My sense of fearlessness in any form of mixing and matching of everything in life.
Sustainability for my company, having a house by the mountain and just grilling on wood in the back of my yard for the rest of my days.